Chapter 8: Ranger
Almonihah’s boot splashed in one of the many puddles in the pass. He froze, his senses straining to detect anything whose attention might have been drawn to him by his indiscretion. He didn’t detect anything, but he didn’t relax quite yet.
Zrathanzon came up by his side. The Ranger was just barely taller than his pupil, now. He said nothing, only nodded approvingly of the half-bronze dragon’s caution… though he would have to talk to him about having made the noise in the first place.
The Pass of Storms was living up to its name. All throughout their ascent, it had been raining steadily, and now that they had reached the top of the pass, they could hear thunder. Almonihah took it all in with pleasure, feeling the wild power of the storm building, but allowed no sign of his pleasure to touch his expression.
Zrathanzon didn’t like the storm as much. “Some of us wouldn’t appreciate being struck by lightning,” he said, humor tinging his voice, as Almonihah’s pause lingered just a bit longer than he thought it should.
The younger half-dragon grunted in acknowledgement and started moving again, choosing his footing just a bit more carefully to avoid a repeat of the incident. Having just spent most of a year training in the desert south of Bet-Rarat was no excuse for forgetting how to move in a rainstorm. He’d been doing so in plenty of places by now.
He thought back over the past decade or so since… everything had happened. He and Zrathanzon had traveled all over the Northern Continent, the more experienced half-dragon teaching his pupil about surviving, tracking, and fighting in all different terrains, climates, and conditions.
He leaped acrobatically over an overflowing stream that cut diagonally across their path, then glanced briefly back at the half-gold dragon. He was moving with his typical lithe grace. Every time Almonihah thought he was getting good, he looked at his teacher and saw just how far he had to go. He wasn’t quite sure if the Ranger had just been holding back when Almonihah was younger, or if it was just the fact that, the better he got, the more clearly he saw how much more he had to learn. Whatever the reason, he was sure Zrathanzon must have a lot of practice—centuries worth, he guessed. Not that he could ever get the Ranger to admit to his age.
The storm broke in earnest as they descended through the pass. Despite their desire to reach the other side quickly, the two half-dragons decided they needed to seek shelter when the hail started falling. Fortunately, there was a small cave a few feet up a cliff along the edge of the pass. A short climb later and they were out of the storm.
They had to wait several hours in the cave. Despite Zrathanzon’s occasional attempts at conversation, Almonihah waited in silence. The Ranger had gotten used to this treatment over the past several years, though there were times Almonihah thought he wondered where the curious young child he had once taught had gone.
Almonihah knew. That child had been buried with his friends.
Eventually, the storm let up. After waiting a little while longer, to make certain it wouldn’t pick back up, the pair emerged and continued on their way. They exited the pass that evening, coming out from under the clouds just as the sun disappeared behind the Stormpeaks.
“Ranger lore says the Pass of Storms is enchanted,” Zrathanzon said as they made camp next to a stream—probably the very one they had crossed up in the pass. “Certainly no one’s crossed it without getting rained on, that I’ve heard of.”
Almonihah grunted in acknowledgement as he finished setting up his tent. As he’d aged, he’d found it less and less necessary to talk. It was typically just a waste of time and energy, though he did find the bits of trivia Zrathanzon sometimes shared interesting. He just felt no need to say as much.
The Ranger sighed. They finished setting up camp and eating dinner in silence, as they had for so many nights over the past decade. Finally, as they finished cleaning up, Zrathanzon spoke.
“Do you know where we’re going?”
“South. Lost Sea, probably,” was Almonihah’s terse response.
Zrathanzon nodded. “Do you know why?”
Almonihah shrugged. “Haven’t been there.”
Zrathanzon chuckled, then sobered. “There’s a bit more to it than that. Yes, the south-central part of the area is a jungle, and we haven’t been in a jungle before, but I’ve got another reason other than training for going there.”
He paused, but Almonihah said nothing. If Zrathanzon wanted to share his other reason, he’d do it without Almonihah asking him. After a moment, the Ranger sighed and explained.
“The Northern Ranger Order Headquarters are in the Lost Sea area. It’s been too long since I’ve reported, though they’re pretty lax about anyone who’s not on the lines watching for Javni’Tolkhrah.”
“And I could join.” Almonihah said it more as a statement than a question.
“You can take the test,” Zrathanzon corrected. Then he smiled a bit. “Though I doubt you’ll have trouble passing.”
Almonihah snorted. He’d already been living as a Ranger for almost his whole life. Not to mention being trained by one of the most experienced Rangers alive. He doubted he’d even have to work hard on the entry test. From all that he and Zrathanzon had discussed about Rangers, the test was more to make sure some city-type with no clue how to live on their own in the wilds tried to be a Ranger. They needed more men too badly to turn away anyone who might be able to do the work.
They arose with the sun the next morning and continued on their way. The two half-dragons headed mostly southeast, staying in the foothills rather than crossing the plains. As they traveled, the mountains to their south grew taller and taller. The Dragon’s Teeth mountains were considered the tallest peaks on the Northern Continent. Most people said they were impassable.
Rangers knew differently. Zrathanzon told Almonihah they were headed towards a pass—the Lost Dragon Pass. It was a high pass, and too narrow for wagons. There were few outside the Northern Ranger Order who knew of it, according to Zrathanzon, and they were generally the only ones who used it.
“I would have liked to have reached it earlier in the year,” the Ranger told his pupil, “but we got caught in those sandstorms.”
Almonihah nodded. The memory of the lashing sands was fresh in his mind. He had been quite glad for his scales, then—he hadn’t envied the orc tribes who made the desert their home, with no more protection than their clothes for their skin.
“As it is,” Zrathanzon continued, “we might get caught in some early snows in the pass. There’s not much shelter up there, so I’d rather not have that happen. The better time we make, the less likely that is to happen.”
Almonihah’s response was to pick up his pace from his normal fast walk to something of a trot. Zrathanzon grinned as he hurried to keep up.
They did make good time, reaching the Lost Dragon Pass during Tiamia, the first month of fall. There was snow on the peaks as they climbed up into the mountains but the skies were clear. Almonihah searched for the pass above him as they hiked up the steep slope, but saw only a solid wall of rock.
Zrathanzon saw the younger half-dragon’s searching gaze and said, “You’ve got sharper eyes than me, but knowing what you’re seeing is often more important than having a bit better eyesight. You see that opening there?”
Almonihah looked where the Ranger was pointing. “It’s a cave,” he said, cautiously.
“A cave that comes out on the other side of the mountain,” was the half-gold dragon’s reply.
Almonihah nodded. No wonder so few knew about the pass.
Snow crunched under the half-dragons’ boots as they approached the cave mouth, but no new snow was falling. Looking in, Almonihah could see that the cave continued into the mountain for a little ways before turning a corner. Zrathanzon entered while his student was looking into the cave.
“It makes a couple of turns before coming out the other side, but it’s not long,” the Ranger explained.
Almonihah entered the cave, his eyes quickly adapting from the snow-reflected sunlight to the darkness of the cave. Then they turned the corner, and he had to rely on his magical black-and-white vision that worked even in total darkness. The cave was rather sizable, and seemed to be a combination of natural formation and widening by something that left long gashes along the walls.
They turned another corner, and Almonihah could see that the cave had once split into two passageways, but one had long since collapsed. Zrathanzon pointed at the collapsed passageway.
“Once, a silver dragon lived here. He was a friend to the Rangers, and guarded this pass for us. One day, though, this passageway collapsed, and he has never been seen since. Most think he died in the collapse. It is in his memory that we call this pass the Lost Dragon Pass.”
“Know him?” Almonihah asked, in his characteristically brief manner.
Zrathanzon shook his head. “It was before I was a Ranger.”
“Hm,” was Almonihah’s response.
Soon they reached the other side of the cave. It exited high in the mountains, and Almonihah could see that they still had a lot of mountain to cover before they reached lower ground. They spent the rest of the day hiking, and once they even had to climb down a short cliff. It was clear no one would have made his way through this pass with heavy equipment, or even a horse.
“This is why basically only the Rangers live in the Lost Sea area,” Zrathanzon explained as they camped for the night in a canyon. “No settler could get here with the gear to farm with, and no trapper could carry many furs out of here.” The Ranger paused, thinking, then continued, “Just as well, too. Settlers would really mess this area up. You understand,” he nodded at Almonihah and the symbol of Naishia hidden under the boiled leather armor he usually wore.
Almonihah grunted in agreement. His preference for wilderness over settled lands had only become more pronounced over the past years, which was one of the many things he felt he and Naishia had in common.
It took them two more days to get out of the mountains. The path they followed was treacherous and difficult, and twice more they had to climb cliff faces.
“Part of the test?” Almonihah asked the Ranger, pointing at the cliff they had just climbed down.
Zrathanzon nodded. “You might say that,” he replied. “Not many people who can actually get to the Lost Sea would fail the test.”
Finally, they turned a corner in the canyon and Almonihah could see the valley of the Lost Sea. Despite his self control, he gasped just a bit at the sight. The day was crystal clear, and they were still quite high up in the mountains, so Almonihah’s keen eyes could see for miles. The mountains sloped gently down into the valley, their sides covered first with evergreen and then with deciduous trees. In the middle, just at the edge of his vision, he could see the glint of water—the Lost Sea, the only sizable known inland body of water that didn’t drain to anything else.
Zrathanzon was obviously pleased with the younger half-dragon’s response. “I thought you would like it,” he said with a grin.
Almonihah nodded in reply. “Definitely glad humans don’t settle here.”
Zrathanzon let Almonihah take in the view for a little while longer, then said “Come on. We’ve still got to climb down here,” he gestured down. They were standing at the top of a cliff face.
Almonihah just snorted. He and Zrathanzon had climbed mountains with worse cliffs than these.
Almonihah could almost feel the temperature and humidity climb as they descended into the huge valley. He hadn’t noticed as much the drop in temperature as they had climbed, perhaps due to the warmth of physical exertion, but he definitely felt the change as they descended. After two days of hiking through forest and then jungle, it was warm enough to actually make him uncomfortable.
He glanced at Zrathanzon. He didn’t seem to mind the heat. Of course, he was half-gold dragon, and golds had a much higher heat tolerance than bronzes. Something about breathing fire did that, he supposed. At the same time, he was glad he wasn’t a human or an elf. If this was uncomfortable for him, it must be unbearably hot for them, especially since the humidity would actually bother them.
As they descended, the foliage changed. He didn’t recognize the trees around them, nor most of the other plants. He supposed they were now in the jungle around the Lost Sea. Zrathanzon said that it was like no other place on Draezoln, and Almonihah thought it was probably true. He took in the new sights, sounds, and smells as they traveled. This place was alive, even more alive than the North Forest, as if every inch of soil was crawling with life.
Zrathanzon identified some of the larger and more interesting plants and animals they saw as they traveled, and Almonihah asked terse questions for clarification or elaboration when he felt they were needed. They traveled for several more days in this way, until they reached the Lost Sea.
Almonihah gazed out over the blue as they broke from the jungle onto a beach. The Lost Sea truly looked like an ocean, its other banks beyond the reach of even his eyes. Waves gently lapped at the sands, just as they had the ocean beaches he had been to.
They traveled along the edge of the Lost Sea for a few more days. Once they reached its south shore, they struck off to the south through the jungle. After a bit of travel, the land started to climb again, and the temperature slowly started to drop. A few more days’ travel brought them to an area fairly high up which seemed to have a more temperate climate, and trees that seemed more like those Almonihah was familiar with.
It wasn’t long before Almonihah heard a strange bird call. He frowned. Something didn’t seem quite right about it. He realized what it was when Zrathanzon responded with something that closely resembled a bird call himself. After a brief moment, a figure strode out of the woods in front of them.
“Greetings, brother Ranger,” an elven voice said, as the figure came into sight.
“And to you,” Zrathanzon replied.
The elf was equipped much like the two half-dragons, with tough leather clothing and armor, bow, and sword. His leather armor was very intricately worked, with a design picked out in silvery thread on the breast—a rampant unicorn, a symbol of Naishia, much like the one that hung around Almonihah’s neck.
“And this one with you?” The elven Ranger inquired.
“An applicant,” the half-gold dragon replied. Almonihah nodded in agreement.
The elf nodded in reply. “I see. You will wish to see the Commander, then. I shall not longer delay you.”
The two half-dragons traveled for perhaps another hour through the woods before they came on a collection of a few cabins nestled in a small ravine around a stream. As they neared the area the cabins were in, Almonihah felt a familiar feeling—this area was dedicated to Naishia.
The half-bronze dragon glanced at his teacher, a silent question in his eye. The older half-dragon didn’t seem to notice. Almonihah shrugged and turned his attention back to their destination. There were a few other Rangers in the area, some coming, some going. One of them noticed Zrathanzon and rushed over.
“Zrathanzon, you old lizard! Where have you been all these years?” The speaker was a big bear of a human, slightly taller even than Zrathanzon, with a deep, booming voice and a mirthful twinkle in his eye.
He wrapped the half-gold dragon up in a big bear hug. Zrathanzon returned it only a little less vigorously.
“Birek, you old bear!” Zrathanzon exclaimed when the stranger finally released the half-dragon. He looked the human up and down, shook his head, and said, “It’s been too long. You’ve gotten gray hairs without me being around to watch.”
Almonihah had noted the silver in the human’s hair. It made sense, if the man knew Zrathanzon. After all, he hadn’t seen another Ranger to Almonihah’s knowledge since taking him in almost twenty years ago.
Zrathanzon continued speaking as his pupil observed his friend. “I’ve been busy. I took this fellow,” he pointed at Almonihah, “in not long after you joined the Order, and he’s kept me pretty busy. What about yourself? Haven’t gotten yourself eaten by a Javni’Tolkhrah, I see.”
The man—Birek, apparently—laughed. “No, they haven’t gotten too big a piece of me. A couple of them have gotten some bites, but the druids around here patch me up pretty well, and none of ’em have lived to get a second bite.”
Zrathanzon nodded, his face sobering a bit. “So you’ve still been holding the Line, then.”
Birek shrugged. “Haven’t got anything better to do.”
The half-gold dragon chuckled a bit, then sobered again. “We’ll catch up later, old friend. Right now, I’ve got a long-overdue report to give and an applicant to present.”
The big man nodded. “Well, I’ll be around.” He turned to Almonihah. “Applying, hm? Well, don’t think that test’s too big a deal. If Zrathanzon’s been training you, you won’t have a bit of trouble.” He winked at the half-bronze dragon and continued on his way.
“Friend of yours?” Almonihah asked the older half-dragon as they neared the large cabin.
Zrathanzon grinned. “My last student before you, as a matter of fact.”
Almonihah’s only response was a grunt.
They entered the cabin. Almonihah glanced around. The place seemed to be decorated with maps. They lay on tables, were nailed to the walls, and were rolled up on shelves. Most of the cabin was this one map room. One end of the room was walled off and had a door in it, the other held a fireplace, the only part of it made of stone.
In the back of the room, behind the largest table (which had a number of maps and papers on it), an elf sat in a simple chair. He looked up as the two half-dragons entered the cabin. Almonihah could see signs of age, which, on an elf, meant he was old indeed, at least seven centuries old. Despite his age, however, there was a steely look to his eyes, and he stood up with the assured grace of an experienced elven warrior.
“Zrathanzon,” he nodded at the half-gold dragon, “You were supposed to report in more often than once every two and a half decades.”
The half-dragon Ranger shrugged. “Things come up. I had another kid.”
The elf snorted, unable to completely conceal his amusement at Zrathanzon’s response. “Last time you ‘had a kid’, you at least reported what was going on. I’d begun to think we’d lost you.”
“I’m not that easy to get rid of,” Zrathanzon said, with a wave of his hand, as if waving away the idea. “Now, I’m sure you’re awaiting my report, but first I think you’ll want to meet Almonihah here.”
The elven Ranger turned his attention to Almonihah. “Almonihah, hm? I take it you’re the reason Zrathanzon hasn’t bothered to talk to another Ranger for so long?”
Almonihah shrugged. “Suppose so,” he replied, the harsh, growling edge to his voice even more pronounced than usual as he eyed the elf uncertainly.
The elf stuck out his hand to shake. “Commander Imlloen, head of the Northern Ranger Order.”
Almonihah took the proffered hand in a firm shake, careful to keep his claws from piercing flesh, but not gentle. If the rough hardness of his scales bothered the elf, he didn’t show it. His grip was as steely as his gaze.
“I’m guessing if this old lizard here,” the Commander said with a gesture at Zrathanzon, “is calling you his ‘kid’, you’re wanting to sign on with the Rangers?”
Almonihah glanced over at his teacher. “How many times’ve you done this?”
Zrathanzon shrugged. “I stopped counting around the same time I forgot when my birthday was.”
Commander Imlloen shook his head. “You remember better than my records do how many Rangers you’ve trained, and you know it.” He fixed him with a glare that had just a hint of humor in it. “And you know perfectly well that you turn 541 in five days, a week before my birthday.”
Zrathanzon chuckled. “I never could fool you, Imlloen.”
The corners of Imlloen’s mouth twitched upwards for a moment, and then he settled back into his chair, his expression relaxing a bit as he allowed the grin to show. “No, you never could. But you’re right, your student here takes precedence over your report, overdue though it might be.” He turned back to Almonihah. “I take it, trusting Zrathanzon has done his usual job, that you have about as good an idea of what you’re getting yourself into as you can?”
“Yes,” Almonihah replied.
The Ranger Commander nodded decisively. “I’ll take your word for it. Zrathanzon wouldn’t have brought you here if he didn’t think you were ready, and his judgment is pretty good after all these years.” He glanced over at the half-gold dragon. “Speaking of you, I believe it’s time for you to wait outside.”
Zrathanzon nodded, his expression sober again, and walked out of the cabin, closing the door after himself.
Imlloen turned back to Almonihah. “I don’t think he’d do anything he shouldn’t if he was in here, but I have to make sure everything you say and do for the next little while is not influenced in any way by anyone else. You will be making binding promises, ones that cannot be taken lightly. Do you understand, Almonihah?”
Almonihah nodded, solemnly.
“Now, Almonihah… do you have a last name?”
The half-bronze dragon’s lips twisted bitterly. “Don’t know it.”
Commander Imlloen nodded in understanding, then continued, “Almonihah, whom do you worship?”
“Naishia,” Almonihah responded.
Imlloen nodded again. “This order was established by worshipers of Naishia, and most of us still call on her, though the Ranger Orders accept followers of all goodly deities.” Returning to his questions, he continued, “Almonihah, do you affirm this day, in the hearing of Naishia, that you truly desire to become a Ranger, without outside coercion of any kind?”
“Almonihah, do you now swear, should you be accepted into the Ranger Orders, that you will defend the natural world from the influences of Jivenesh and all other threats, to the best of your ability, so long as breath is left in your body?”
Almonihah didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
Commander Imlloen looked hard into Almonihah’s eyes for a long moment, then finally nodded his head once. “Very well then. Before acceptance into our order, all who would join us must pass a test of ability and worthiness. Before I explain this test, do you understand that you may, at any time before you are formally accepted into the Ranger Orders, renounce your intentions to join?”
Almonihah snorted, mildly amused by the line of questioning, then said, “Yes.”
The Ranger Commander continued, the words obviously familiar, “The test of the Ranger is this: you will go out, alone, to a location I will show you on the map. You must reach the location with no guide. You must remain there, alone, until another Ranger retrieves you. During this time, you will likely be attacked by a Madness-Touched. If you cannot defeat it on your own, you need only retreat and call for help. You will, however, fail the test if you do so. Almonihah, are you prepared?”
There was still no hesitation in Almonihah’s voice or gaze. “Yes.”
Imlloen again held Almonihah’s gaze for a while before saying, “Very well. Come.”
Imlloen waved Almonihah over to his side, then pointed at a location on one of the maps spread on the table before him.
“This is where we presently are,” the Commander said, pointing at a spot on the map. “Here,” he pointed at a spot closer to the southern mountains, “Is where you will be tested.”
Almonihah studied the map, carefully memorizing the landmarks, directions, and distances he would need to reach the site.
“What’s this?” Almonihah gently tapped a red line that passed a little south of the position he would be occupying with a claw.
“That,” Commander Imlloen replied, “Is the approximate border of the Madlands. I would suggest you don’t overshoot and end up there.”
Almonihah nodded, thoughtfully. That would explain where the Javni’Tolkhrah would be coming from.
“Is there anything else you need to know, Almonihah?” the elf asked, after Almonihah stood up from studying the map.
Almonihah simply shook his head.
“Then be on your way, Candidate.”
Zrathanzon was a little bit away from the cabin door when Almonihah exited, talking and laughing with Birek. He saw his most recent pupil exit and strode over to meet him.
“Off to be tested?”
Zrathanzon laid a hand on his shoulder. “Then good luck, though I doubt you’ll need it. You’ll make a fine Ranger.”